Indonesia turns away boat of Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants

People believed to be Rohingya migrants in a shelter in Aceh, Indonesia (12 May 2015) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rohingyas from Myanmar are fleeing persecution and lack of opportunity

Indonesia has turned away a boat carrying hundreds of migrants believed to be from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Indonesia's navy said it provided the vessel with food and water on Monday before sending it back out to sea.

It said that it did so because the migrants wanted to reach Malaysia, but an international migration agency said the decision was "shocking".

As many as 8,000 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are believed by the agency to be stranded at sea.

Correspondents say people smugglers who ferry the migrants are now reluctant to follow their usual route through Thailand because of a government campaign there against them.

"The passengers were still alive and in good condition," said Indonesian navy spokesman Manahan Simorangkir.

"They were seeking help and they didn't want to go to Indonesia. They wanted to go to Malaysia, so we sent them on their way after providing them with food, water and medical supplies," he said.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Migrants have been rescued off the coast of Aceh in the last couple of days

But International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Joe Lowry told the BBC news website earlier that "if true it would be shocking - these people need to land".

He said people on board such ships needed urgent help as there were many reports of passengers suffering from beriberi - a disease caused by vitamin deficiency.

"Beriberi leaves you like a walking skeleton - they will need immediate humanitarian assistance," he said.

The journey the migrants take - from Bangladesh or Myanmar through the Bay of Bengal to Thailand or beyond - takes several weeks. They have been slowed further by the refugees effectively being held hostage by smugglers.

"There are cases documented of people who have been at sea since early March waiting for boats to fill up and ransoms to be paid," said Mr Lowry.

"They've obviously getting some food and water but no appropriate nutrition."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The migrants have been held in punishing conditions

Who are the Rohingyas?

  • Rohingyas are a distinct, Muslim ethnic group mainly living in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma
  • Thought to be descended from Muslim traders who settled there more than 1,000 years ago
  • Also live in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
  • In Myanmar, they are regularly persecuted - subjected to forced labour, have no land rights, and are heavily restricted
  • In Bangladesh many are also desperately poor, with no documents or job prospects

Myanmar's unwanted people

On Sunday and Monday more than 2,000 migrants arrived in Malaysia or Indonesia after being rescued or swimming ashore.

Jeff Labovitz, another IOM spokesman, told the BBC on Monday that the discovery last week of dozens of human remains in abandoned camps in the south of Thailand had prompted a police crackdown and therefore people smugglers were avoiding their usual route and holding their boats at sea.

The boats are carrying Bangladeshi migrants, and ethnic Rohingyas who face persecution in Myanmar.

A report by the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday that 25,000 migrants boarded people smugglers' boats from Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2015's first quarter - about double the number who left over the same period in 2014. It said about 300 people died at sea from January to March this year.

More on this story